The Women Who Raised Me

by Victoria Rowell

The Women Who Raised Me

Hardcover, 339 pages, Harpercollins, List Price: $25.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

The actress and dancer describes her origins as a mixed-race child from the Maine foster care system, her efforts to build her career, and the remarkable women who supported and inspired her.

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Excerpt: The Women Who Raised Me

The Women Who Raised Me

The Women Who Raised Me

A Memoir


William Morrow

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Rowell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-124659-3

Chapter One

Bertha C. Taylor

What comes first, before conscious memory, before recorded images, and before the oral accounts that later helped me understand what happened during my first two and a half years of life, is a melody. It's the sound of a lullaby sung by a woman who loves me infinitely, in a full voice that is untrained but on-key, perhaps with a frill here and there that she would never dare use at choir practice or in church, but allows herself just for me. The melody is accompanied in my primal senses by the sensation of motion, as I am held to her bosom and rocked.

Fittingly, my life begins with a dance-a waltz!

Out of this music and movement, other impressions remain of my first foster mother, Bertha Taylor, who received me from the Holy Innocents Home, the orphanage connected to Mercy Hospital in Portland, Maine. When I was three weeks old, Bertha took me to her home, fifteen miles away in the small town of Gray, Maine, with the absolute conviction that she would raise me to adulthood as her own. I know in my cells that this was her maternal plan, just as I know how generously and tenderly every day she kissed my forehead, the nape of my neck, and all my fingers and toes. I know that with her husband at her side and helping, too, she bathed me and changed my diapers for two and a half years, and that with her two best friends, Laura Sawyer and Retha Dunn, and their husbands, created a foundation of love and community that would live on in my self-esteem even when I couldn't name its origin. I know that Bertha was my mother who bundled me up and took me outside as winter approached to introduce me to my first falling snow, the same mother who encouraged me to take my first steps.

Here in Gray, Maine, population 2,100 or so, approximately 99.9 percent Caucasian in the early 1960s, in the Taylor home on Greenleaf Street-formerly an old redbrick railroad station that Bertha converted into a ten-room residence-joy was born in my life. This imprinted happiness was a lasting gift that my first foster mother bestowed upon me.

What I also know, however, is that it was in this same place where I first heard a grown woman crying. That sound of anguish after a prolonged but failed effort to adopt me left a confusing shadow over my childhood-a dark mystery rooted not only in the circumstances of my birth, but in the very history of Maine.

Perched in the shape of a large ear, as if listening to the secrets of the vast Atlantic Ocean, situated at the most northeastern corner of the American Northeast, the state of Maine is not only the soil from which I sprang, but it ultimately represents my only legal parent. I was literally a daughter of Maine, influenced to an important degree by commonly held, decent values. Mainers on the whole are hardworking, down-to-earth people, devoted to family and community, austere, practical, faithful. Lives depend on survival of the elements and demand a respect for nature. Seasons mattered. We farmed, trapped, shoveled, tapped trees. Some fished, others cut timber and hunted, raised crops, milked cows, slopped pigs, and cleaned coops. We farmers took care of one another and what we had because life depended on it. We had long ago learned to recognize the consequences of failing to do so. We learned how to make things by hand and how to fix them when they were broken.

Of course, when I was growing up, there were noticeable regional and class differences. Northern or coastal Mainers, like members of the Collins family of Castine or lineages from places like Kennebunkport, Camden, and Booth Bay Harbor, tended to be wealthier, more educated, more connected to our nation's founding families; the smaller rural or industrial towns of the south and interior-like Berwick, Gray, and West Lebanon-tended to be poorer and more working class, with lesser known but still long ago planted family names like Lord, Quimby, James, and Shapleigh of Lebanon, Maine. Ahead of their time, establishing early welfare in the United States, before and after the Civil War, these farmers bought and sold farms to aid the sick, the poor, and children, thus creating almsfarms (charity farms). Aside from other distinctions determined by social status, money, education level, and religious affiliation, differences were strong between the part-timers who summered in state and the year-round Mainers. Nonetheless, between most groups of people, a tradition of civility-if not actual tolerance-prevailed.

So you might conclude that the ills of racial discrimination would never have come to roost in a state known for its political independence and its historically significant antislavery role. In 1820, when Maine was granted statehood as the twenty-third state, it was in fact thanks to the terms of the Missouri Compromise-allowing Maine to separate from ownership by Massachusetts and to join the Union as a "free state" while Missouri was to be admitted as a "slave state," thus maintaining a numerical balance between states that forbade human bondage and those that permitted it. Abolitionist societies soon flourished in Maine, in an atmosphere that empowered Harriet Beecher Stowe, then a resident of Brunswick, to write Uncle Tom's Cabin-the antislavery rallying cry heard in the years leading up to the Civil War. In some regards, Maine led the way over the next century when it came to laws protecting the rights of its African American citizens. But unfortunately there were exceptions to this tradition-as evidenced by one of Maine's most shameful chapters, otherwise known as Malaga Island.

From the time that I was in my twenties and first heard about the tragic history of this obscure island, one among several inhabitable isles dotting Casco Bay near Phippsburg, I was haunted by it. Whether or not what happened on Malaga Island in 1912 has any direct connection to my story, I can't say, but it helps to expose some of the social and legal contradictions that Bertha Taylor had to battle on my behalf.

(Continues...)




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